Emma Knights

Author: Emma Knights

13/11/2020 13:28:28

It was good to have been a member of the expert group set up by the Department for Education (DfE) to review these national standards which aim to:

  • shape headteachers’ own practice and professional development, within and beyond the school
  • support the recruitment and appointment of headteachers
  • provide a framework for training middle and senior leaders aspiring to headship
  • inform the performance management of headteachers

And in this guest blog Malcolm Trobe, chair of the DfE review group, explains the approach the group took.

One of the questions I was fairly tenacious in asking at the group’s meetings was “but how will the revised standards actually achieve those aims in practice?” Governing boards are absolutely at the centre of making those standards meaningful given their role in recruiting, developing and appraising headteachers. The other side of that coin is those functions are arguably the most important a board undertakes, part of its core responsibility to support and challenge the senior professional leadership.

The Headteacher Standards 2020 can be used to inform this work of governing boards, feeding into the development of job descriptions and specifications; the setting of annual objectives and conversations about the support needs and development aspirations. They need to be used intelligently, amended as befits the context and role, not as a check list nor in place of productive, honest discussion.

The review group had received feedback from stakeholders, headteachers and governors indicating that additional guidance to support the effective implementation of the standards in different contexts would be highly valued. And the answer to my question at the review group; well, that’s the job of the National Governance Association. Yes, indeed we exist to support governing boards, but NGA guidance is paid for by boards’ membership fees and our e-learning modules by our Learning Link subscribers. But let’s look at this cup half full: I am pleased DfE recognises NGA’s role in the system and we have been getting on with incorporating references to the Headteacher Standards 2020.

On the day of the standards’ publication in October, the DfE team involved in developing the standards and reviewing the related National Professional Qualification in Headship (NPQH) addressed an NGA conference: the recording is on our YouTube channel. The visual representation of the standards has gone down very well in the governance community:

Members have joined NGA in welcoming ethics and conduct being at the centre of the standards: the Principles of Public Life are further elaborated in the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education.

Secondly there has been a quiet celebration with governance taking its rightful place as part of school accountability: that is a feather in the cap for our Visible Governance campaign.

Thirdly the standards also throw a welcome light on the importance of a healthy culture throughout the school, but the place of strategy in the work of leaders is less developed. The strategy needs to be co-constructed with governing boards and I recommend both governing boards and senior leadership read the newly revised Being Strategic guide, published in partnership with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) to explore this further.

So that first all-important step of recruiting a new leader: our guidance for members has been updated and there are now two new e-learning modules covering the whole recruitment process for our Learning Link subscribers. The just in time nature of Learning Link – meaning you can turn to it exactly when you need it - makes it particularly relevant to recruiting a senior leader, and the recruiting panel can go through the modules together. At that point re-reading the Headteacher Standards would be a must – do your job description and specification capture all aspects of the role set out in the standards?

And once the headteacher is in position, development, setting objectives and appraisal is crucial. We prefer the phrase development and appraisal to performance management. Our most used Learning Link module this term has been on setting objectives and one of our most downloaded pieces of guidance was similarly on headteacher appraisal. Many of you will have done that before these new standards were published, and that is absolutely fine to continue as you were. But at future appraisal and mid-year review sessions, the panel and headteacher should have a conversation as to which of the standards pose the biggest challenges and how that might be solved with support and CPD.

Unfortunately, not only was there very little evidence available on the way in which the previous standards had been used, but there was nothing for the review group to consider on the development needs of headteachers in England. Indeed I was pleased NGA could help: our Annual Governance Survey provided the most comprehensive data. It tells us that in their first couple of years senior leaders - both of trusts as well as headteachers – struggle most with the organisational management domain. Development was required six times as often on this domain as with curriculum and teaching, and four times as often needs arose here than with the culture and ethos domain. This is unsurprising – you might even say blooming obvious – given our senior leaders have almost all begun as classroom teachers and we have not always been as good as we should have been in developing our middle leaders in these aspects: some arrive at headship with very little exposure to those aspects of the role. Finances were a particular area of concern, followed by human resources/management of staff and risk management with many also picking out parental engagement, partnership working and leading change. A lack of governance experience can be addressed by middle leaders volunteering within another school or trust: our Educators on Board campaign has been wonderfully embraced and endorsed by the profession.

For years we have been lobbying for these organisational management aspects to be at the forefront of development programmes for senior leaders and new headteachers. If we are truly in the business of improving schools and trusts and the experiences of pupils, these needs to be taken seriously by both DfE and those delivering programmes. But actually governing boards have the ability to make the most impact with any such gaps in knowledge and experience: please have that conversation during the recruitment and induction period, and make sure CPD is found which will specifically fulfil those gaps. The development choices should be tailored to the needs and check afterwards that it had an impact. A mentor is also an important option for new heads.

Where next?

The DfE’s review group as well as proposing the new standard, had a few recommendations for the Department:

  1. DfE should help maximise awareness of the standards and support the sector to use them effectively
  2. DfE should consider how to review the impact and use of the new standards, so that any future reviews will have a stronger empirical foundation.
  3. DfE should consider how it can learn more about the role of executive leaders in school trusts with a view to supporting high quality trust leadership. And on that subject NGA has also started our own work, so please do watch this space.


In place of our annual conference this November, we are holding four virtual seminars and two are on the theme of leadership:

The governing board’s role in promoting diversity and equality in senior leadership: Tuesday 24 November 4.30-6.00pm

The governing board’s role in well-being and retention of senior leadership: Thursday 26 November 4.30-6.00pm

Book here

Evelyn Nichols
Really helpful and ensures we can keep abreast of development and current thinking. I will be at a Governors meeting on the 23rd. Will there be an opportunity to access the seminar slides etc afterwards? Thank you.
13/11/2020 15:14:41

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